Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
I've talked some about Mary, our next-door neighbor. In this wedding picture of ours, Mary is the lady in the white pants on the far left side. She stood up for us at our wedding. She was probably the first person Lisa was really "out" to, comfortably. And, other than a very close circle of friends, Mary was the only person who knew we'd gone to Vermont and entered into a Civil Union. When we got married last summer, we asked Mary to be one of our two witnesses. As described in later paragraphs, she's alone, and we wanted her to feel included in something special because she's been so supportive.
I bought my house in August, 1991. I never really saw much of Mary and her husband, Tom, as they pretty much stayed to themselves. We spoke from time to time, but that was about it.
On November 11, 1993, a Saturday, I backed out of my driveway at 7:15 AM, heading out to a city high school where I would take a civil service exam. As I backed out, I saw Tom up on the roof of his house, which really wasn't all that unusual. Tom was always doing stuff around the house. He was 45 years old. At about 2:30 that afternoon, as I napped on the couch, my kids woke me up to tell me that there was an ambulance next door. As the ambulance pulled away, I could see inside that they were frantically doing CPR on someone -- at the same time, I saw Mary walking through her yard toward her daughter's car, shaking her head. I said to the kids, "Someone didn't make it." It was Tom. Mary and her younger daughter had been out shopping and, when they got back home, they found Tom on the floor in the bedroom. An autopsy later revealed a heart condition that literally causes the heart to sort of explode, and is typically only diagnosed at an autopsy.
That following summer, I'd be outside mowing my grass and Mary would be out doing hers, and we'd stop and chat. We quickly began to team up on both lawns with both mowers, and it really made the task so much easier. From that point on, if Mary ever needed an extra set of hands doing something, she always felt comfortable calling me.
When Lisa moved in five years ago, she also began offering assistance based on her own abilities. For the past five years, that's the way it's been. If Mary needed help with anything, she'd call us, and we'd both go over and help out, if we could. Mary used to pay someone $20 a pop to mow her lawn but, this past spring, we obtained a riding mower and I asked Lisa what she thought about doing Mary's lawn, too. It didn't feel right to take money from Mary, even though she insisted, so we agreed to let her pay us. After the first month, I offered an alternative. I suggested a "co-operative" type of agreement. We'd mow her lawn, and she'd loan us tools we didn't have, or an extra set of hands doing some large project, whatever. And so, it began. Mary helped us patch and seal our driveway, and we did hers right alongside her as well. We mow her lawn and, while we mow, she weeds our gardens. She has a table saw that Lisa has needed from time to time, and we have hand tools that Mary has borrowed. She helped us clean our garage two weekends ago, and this past weekend we did hers.
Tom and Mary had two daughters. Tina is probably around 32 and Jaime is probably nearing 30 herself. Tina and her same-sex partner had a long-term relationship that finally ended. When they sold their house, much of the stuff in it that Tina kept ended up in Mary's house and garage. Tina suggested to her mother, at one point, that she sell her house, give Tina the proceeds to build a new house with, and Mary could live with her. Jaime and her boyfriend lived there with Mary for a couple of years after Jaime finished community college. I was surprised when Jaime moved out and moved in with her sister -- along with her fiance.
Mary claims that Tina refuses to come into the house where her father died, and that Tina and Jaime both thought they were entitled to their father's insurance money, his social security, etc. Frankly, I don't know, nor do I care, what caused the rift. I only know that one exists. Two years ago, Jaime got married, and Mary wasn't invited or included in any way in the wedding preparations or the ceremony. Having had a similar situation with my younger daughter, I know the hurt inflicted by this type of exclusion. Mary doesn't even know if she has grandchildren.
Mary's mother has Alzheimer's Disease. While Mary is Health Care Proxy for her mother, her sister has General Power of Attorney. The mother is in an assisted living facility, and has gone downhill quite quickly. Somehow using the General Power of Attorney, the sister had the Health Care Proxy overridden and now makes each and every decision regarding the care of her mother. The mother has been put on so many meds, I can't keep track of them, but she was sleeping all the time, and has difficulty swallowing. She cried often when anyone messed with her foot or ankle, and the sister just asked that she be medicated more to stop the crying. She needs to be fed, but the staff won't spend more than 10 minutes helping her. Mary has taken to going over every evening to ensure her mother eats. She says it takes about an hour and a half to feed her, but she eats everything. With her difficulty swallowing, the mother has taken to sticking her finger down her throat so that she can swallow things with a certain texture. She drools, too. The sister asked for meds to solve those problems, too.
Then, last week, the sister told her siblings that she was going to order that her mother no longer be fed, and be placed on "comfort care." That is, they'd provide only for her comfort, and just let her die. She was, after all, severely dehydrated, unable to take water, and unable to eat. She was unresponsive to much of what went on around her, and nobody could figure out why she cried when the ONLY male orderly took her to the bathroom, and stood there over her while she tried to urinate or defecate.
Mary finally had enough, and called and spoke with the doctor who, apparently, was unaware of the specifics regarding Mary's mother. It turns out that the reason the poor thing cried about her foot was that they didn't transport her in a wheelchair that had footrests and her left foot would drop down and literally go under the wheelchair, with whomever driving the wheelchair being oblivious to the poor woman's pain. She has a severely sprained ankle. The poor thing was on so many meds, they were knocking her out and dehydrating her. Well, long story short, they removed a lot of the meds, and her mother became a bit more participative in her own care, and began to get color back in her skin. She's no longer dehydrated, and Mary continues to go over every single day at dinner time to feed her mother. That way she knows her mother is getting at least one good meal each day. The siblings only visit for short periods of time, and completely un-ass the area at meal time.
Mary has a lot on her plate right now and we've done whatever we could to try to help out. I go over every day at 4:30 when I get home from work, and let her dogs out to "potty." I hang out with them a bit, play with them, give them some attention, and then turn on a light for Mary so she won't come into a dark house. I feel impotent as far as what I'm doing to "help" her out, but at least I can do something.
So, where I'm going with this is the phone call we got last night around 8:00. Mary had finished feeding her dogs and herself, and called to ask if she could come over and talk to us at 8:30. Lisa said "Sure, come on over." Lisa said Mary sounded very serious, and wondered out loud what was up. We both figured that her mother had taken a downhill turn, and she was having difficulty getting the one sister to do anything besides hasten her mother's death.
We were blown away by what she wanted to talk to us about.
After all the cussin' and fussin' over her mother, Mary explained that her eyes had been opened to a lot of things. Since her daughters can't be bothered with her she realized that there was nobody to make decisions in her best interest, if she were ever unable to make those decisions. (These two girls haven't bothered to go see their grandmother, either.) Mary is in the process of changing her will and for all intents and purposes, is disinheriting her siblings and her offspring. She wants us to execute her will, be her health care proxy, and to hold General Power of Attorney over her affairs should she become incapacitated. In return, she says, everything goes to us. She's made an appointment with her insurance agent to change her policy to name us as sole beneficiaries.
We talked for a couple of hours about this. I asked her to make sure that this is really what she wants, in her heart, and not an act of spite or payback or anything else. I mean, we've helped Mary out all along because it's the right thing to do, and it's what neighbors should do. We didn't expect any sort of payment, and certainly didn't expect to be named as her sole heirs. We left off with me asking her to take some time, and really search her heart for her true feelings regarding her will. I told her we'd be happy to take responsibility for health care proxy and other matters, to ensure that her family doesn't try to hasten her demise, as they seem to have done with her mother. I have a program called "Will Writer" that has things like Health Care Proxies and the like, and told her I'd sit down with her to draw up those documents, but that she needed to consult an attorney and a disinterested party regarding her will. Lisa, being the practical one, asked Mary to articulate her desires to us, and she took notes. No funeral, DNR order, that sort of thing.
We talked a bit more about the types of legal challenges this sort of thing can bring about, and she's going to look into how best to deflect these challenges. The long and short of it is, these are her wishes and, at this point in time, she seems quite sure of them.
I'm still blown away. I'm blown away by her generosity, but I'm blown away by the circumstances that got her to that point as well.
If you're reading this, and you have even a little bit of conflict with your parents or siblings or children, make yourself a promise that tonight you'll call them, and just check in. And let them know that they can count on you to do the right things by them, so that when they begin thinking about the end of their lives, they don't feel so alone that they feel like the only people they matter to are the neighbors. Hug them. Tell them you love them. And above all, offer the forgiveness that you may have denied them to this point.